QUEENSTOWN — Brian Billick answers the door wearing shorts, no shoes and a polo shirt with a picture of a sailboat on the breast.
As he folds his 6-foot-5 frame into a plush chair, the Wye River rolls by in the background. No sound from outside spoils the essential calm of his space.
In a previous life, Billick would have spent this Monday afternoon operating on too few hours of sleep, his mind obsessed with next week’s opponent and his nerves jangling from the unending stress of supervising an NFL team.
If you’d asked him a week, a month or even a year after the Ravens fired him, he would have said of course he’d coach again. When a man has spent three decades on that high-stakes treadmill, the idea of voluntarily staying off seems far-fetched.
But sitting with Billick on an impeccable September afternoon, almost 12 years after he last stalked an NFL sideline, you feel he would have been crazy to leave his Eastern Shore Xanadu for another spin.
“I can bike ride to the end of Wye Island and back, all total 35 miles, and not see a single car,” he said.
At age 65, Billick feels content putting a period on his coaching resume: 80-64 over nine seasons in Baltimore, capped by the Ravens’ first Super Bowl victory Jan. 28, 2001. On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, he’ll see that legacy honored when he becomes just the second nonplayer (after original owner Art Modell) to join the franchise’s Ring of Honor.
When his phone rang this spring, Billick did not expect to hear Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on the other end, saying: “It’s time for you to go in.”
But he’s forged an unusual and happy afterlife with the only organization for which he worked as a head coach. He does not remember exactly when he walked back into the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills for the first time, but he does remember the ease with which the team’s current head coach, John Harbaugh, welcomed him. Whether Billick was preparing for a national Fox broadcast or, in more recent seasons, serving as color commentator on the Ravens’ preseason games, he and Harbaugh fell into a natural rapport.
“Well, it’s not hard,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a really good person. Coach Billick is an iconic Raven. That’s just the way it is. He had tremendous success here. He was the guy that kind of framed the Ravens early on in the tenure of this franchise.”
It’s easy to forget now, but the Ravens had never won more than six games when Billick arrived in 1999 as a red-hot coaching name who’d coordinated a record-smashing offense for the Minnesota Vikings. The former Cleveland Browns were still casting about for an identity in their new city. And Billick, as much as anyone, would craft the winning narrative that players and fans could buy into.
Early in his tenure, when he was still living out of a hotel, he toured Memorial Stadium, hoping to glean a sense of what the old place meant to fans.
“One father came up with his son,” Billick recalled. “And he said, ‘I’ll always be a Baltimore Colt. I grew up going to the game with my dad and that’s what I’m going to be. But I can’t tell you how excited I am that I get to share these experiences with my son, who’s now a Ravens fan.’ … That was an important moment for me, to fully conceptualize this whole Baltimore story of the Colts leaving and the Ravens coming, what that meant.”
When the Ravens finally took off in 2000 behind a world-smashing defense, Billick conducted the season like a young maestro, at first banning his players from using the terms “playoffs” or “Super Bowl,” then, once the postseason arrived, laying out a precise schedule that would take the Ravens through every day until the big game.
“I think that gave them — I know it did because they’ve said so — a sense of ‘Yeah, this is real,’ ” he said. “You can’t just give them coaching B.S. They’ll see right through you in a minute. You have to give them something real. How are you going to help them? How are we going to get this done?”
Sure enough, the Ravens outscored four postseason opponents by a combined 95-23.
The seven seasons after that featured peaks and valleys, but Billick thought he stood on firm ground until Bisciotti relieved him of his duties on New Year’s Eve 2007. Just a year earlier, he’d signed a contract extension after leading the Ravens to a 13-3 record.
Billick still does not believe Bisciotti was right to fire him, but he does not absolve himself of blame.
He used a boating metaphor, describing how the captain must be aware of three factors: his own vessel’s fitness, the surrounding conditions and his ultimate direction.
“When you get in trouble is when you get distracted from one or the other,” Billick said. “Which is ultimately what probably cost me in Baltimore, if I look back and critique that last year. … I knew where we were going and I knew where we had to get. I knew what was going on around us. I probably was not as aware of my team and what was going on with them, both collectively and individually. As I look back, that would probably be the biggest regret that I have.”
Regardless, he let go of any bitterness.
“I move on very quickly,” he said. “Even with Steve … it wasn’t right away, but it wasn’t long before Steve and I were conversing again.”
Billick said he and general manager Ozzie Newsome discussed candidates to replace him as he cleaned out his office the day after he was fired. One of the names he tossed out was that of a young special-teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I don’t want to overstate,” he said. “This is not Al Gore inventing the internet. But I know for a fact I’m the one who put John on Ozzie’s radar.”
Billick was only 53 when Bisciotti fired him, and he assumed he’d don the headset in a different NFL city. But another Super Bowl-winning coach, Jimmy Johnson, offered cautionary words when Billick took a job with Fox Sports.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Don’t go back. It would be a mistake,’ ” Billick recalled. “And I know now what he was talking about. All jobs are tough, but that job is 24/7, 365-day, all-consuming. When you’re in it, you don’t think of it. It’s just what you do.”
Several opportunities arose over the next five years, but Billick heard a surprising voice in his head each time a team showed interest.
“As we were going through the conversation, part of me, for the first time … I caught myself going, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ ” he recalled. “And that shocked me a little bit, that hesitation presenting itself.”
When he made appearances at boat shows and other events, fans would ask about his coaching plans. By that time, Billick and his wife, Kim, had moved into their custom-designed estate with its five fireplaces and tall windows overlooking the Wye River. He was free to spend his days on a boat rather than cooped up in a windowless conference room, worrying about next year’s offensive tackle prospects. Fans and columnists no longer seemed intent on running him out of town. He no longer worried that his chosen profession would send him to an early grave because of the stress.
He had to step out of the daily swirl to realize it, but life away from football felt good.
He also compared each new opportunity with his situation in Baltimore, where he’d shared a deep trust with Newsome.
“There were a couple of opportunities right afterward, but I always said, ‘I had a really good first marriage with Ozzie and the Ravens,’ ” he said. “So I had an idea what that organization should look like, and I committed to myself that I was not going to go into what I knew would not be a good relationship just to get back into it.”
A few years ago, he realized he was never going back.
The coach’s voice inside him has not gone silent. He sees thrilling young talents such as Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes and wonders what he could do with them. He’s convinced that lessons drawn from announcing and corporate speaking gigs would have sharpened and broadened his perspective.
But then he thinks about his grandson’s baseball games and all those autumn afternoons boating on the Chesapeake, lovely moments he never would have experienced had he been fretting about next Sunday’s opponent.
More change looms. The Billicks built their house assuming they’d pass the rest of their years beside the Wye River, but now they’re planning to sell and move to Columbus, Ohio, where their grandchildren live.
Billick has two years left on his contract as an NFL Network analyst, and he also records 10-minute segments for a consortium of 20 radio stations around the country.
Every network seems to reserve an analyst spot for a former Super Bowl-winning coach, so Billick figures he has some market value left, at least until a younger version comes along. He jokes that perhaps Harbaugh could bump him from another post. “Oh, he’d be outstanding,” Billick said, chuckling. “I’d be out of my second job in a New York minute.”
His wife worries how he’ll react when his television run ends and he’s truly disconnected from the league, but Billick does not share her anxiety.
Twelve years feels like several lifetimes on an NFL clock. Only two current Ravens, punter Sam Koch and guard Marshal Yanda, played for Billick. Both struggle to dredge up specific memories of their first professional coach.
“I was a rookie so I just kept my head down, followed the lead of the old guys,” Yanda said. “It was just a tough year for us.”
But Billick probably won’t be thinking about that final season when he walks out to be honored Sunday. He’ll focus on the names beside him in the Ring of Honor, most of whom he coached, and the new story they wrote for a football-starved city.
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“We were able to change the culture,” Billick said. “That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. That’s probably the thing the players most often say to me.”